[21 September 2012]
Ah, New Jersey. The Garden State has taken some lumps in recent years courtesy of the bozos from The Jersey Shore, but the music that has emanated from the state has been indisputably top-notch for the longest. Popular music has always been represented, whether it be Frank Sinatra and Frankie Valli making their mark decades ago or Whitney Houston dominating in recent eras. The hip-hop and metal scenes have always been vibrant and recent years have seen punk and hardcore well represented through the likes of Lifetime and The Misfits. The Warped Tour set have been presented with a wealth of Jersey options in the new millennium, but few have gained as much notice or seen as much extended success as Senses Fail.
Senses Fail is very much a part of the new generation of bands that have been able to make great strides via the internet. Initially formed as a quartet in 2002 by vocalist Buddy Nielsen via a MySpace posting, the band hit the ground running, playing as many shows as possible and recording a pair of well-received demos that were eventually combined into a single release called From The Depths Of Dreams. The band plied their trade in the hooky poppy punk made a big deal by Midwestern powerhouses like The Get Up Kids and bolstered the heavy with a intimate knowledge of fellow Jersey stalwarts Thursday. The band signed to emo (note small e) factory Drive-Thru Records within the same year and rereleased a third remixed version of From The Depths Of Dreams that troubled the lower regions of the Billboard charts for a good part of 2003.
The following year found the band moving on to LA-based uber-indie Vagrant Records and releasing their debut full-length Let It Enfold You. Nielsen was only 20 years old at the time and the all the Hot Topics were touched on: Bukowski title? Check. Trendy spiritualism? Check. Drop some Joseph Campbell in the mix and a cred-building cover (Suicidal Tendencies, guys? Really?) and you’ve got a band setting the Warped Tour on fire. A video shot on the set of soap opera The Guiding Light only heightened the Senses Fail shine and the band shifted a respectable number of units.
Record number two for Vagrant was Still Searching. Recording with Brian McTernan and swapping the second guitar slot with ex-Midtown singer Heath Saraceno. The McTernan choice and the ridiculous SI cover speak to the issue Senses Fail have fought since their inception: while they are really a decent pop band, the band insists on bolting on tin boilerplate like screamy vocals and chugga distortion on to the songs. Original guitarist Garrett Zablocki and Saraceno play off each other nicely, harmonizing a lead here, trading off riffs there to a good end. The Chris Lord-Alge mix certainly helps a lot, too, making everything big and radio-friendly, but ultimately the record lived up to its name.
The Still Searching touring cycle found the band zig-zagging the country with a gang of sort of hard bands like The Used and My Chemical Romance on the inaugural Taste Of Chaos tour. They reappeared on the Warped Tour and re-released the record at the end of their touring cycle with a DVD and bonus tracks, including a more appropriate Cranberries cover. Bassist Mike Gitta left after the tour, replaced in a bizarro turn of events with the mighty Hot Water Music four-stringer Jason Black, a move akin to bolting a rocket engine onto a bicycle. Saraceno left amicably after the tour behind the following record Life Is Not A Waiting Room, leaving Zablocki to record both sets of guitar tracks on 2010’s The Fire before adding Zack Roach on guitar for the tour. The guitar round robin found Zablocki leaving for college, and replaced by Matt Smith of Strike Anywhere.
Follow Your Bliss allows us a taste of the current Senses Fail lineup via a four song EP appended to this limited (10K) release greatest hits CD. The new track “Vines” was released as a well-received single over the summer. Contrasted with the early material, the tracks definitely hearken back to the harder material of their youth. The limited release features elaborate liner notes from band members past and present, along with a gang of photos. Sure there are a lot of conspicuous sleeve tattoos and much mentioning of headbanging, but it’s the clean intros and melodic hooks in tracks like “Calling All Cars” and “Lady In A Blue Dress” that are the strongest part of Senses Fail. The musicianship is not to be sold short either. Drummer Dan Trapp is bedrock solid on every Follow Your Bliss track, regardless of era, and the glory era of Zablocki, Saraceno and Black playing with him is a band that has few peers in its genre. It’s when the aces harmonized guitar leads and lockstep rhythm section are juxtaposed against silly Cookie Monster vocals that things start coming off a tad silly and contrived. Nielsen is an engaging frontman and decent songwriter for the genre, but his ersatz hardcore vocalizing really needs to be reevaluated. The sixteen tracks on Follow Your Bliss capture a band with obvious talent, but even after four successful records Senses Fail, or perhaps more specifically Nielsen, continue to be self-conscious about embracing the fact that they are a pop band in hard guy clothing.